The devastating fires in California are but the most dramatic example of a phenomenon that has ravaged many parts of the world in 2017. At least 30 people have been killed by the fires in northern California and thousands are missing. Tens of thousands of others have either lost their homes or been forced to flee. Propelled by strong winds fires have destroyed almost 200,000 acres of land in California including ranches and businesses. Sonoma County and Mendocino County have been hit particularly hard and Redwood Valley has been reduced to ashes.
This news report from Saturday October 14th provides a good overview of the issues and challenges in California. More than 8000 firefighters are combating ongoing wildfires in the Golden State and a record amount of fire retardants have been dumped on these record setting fires.
The fine particles from wildfires have been linked to respiratory problems like asthma, heart attacks, and even cardiac arrest. Wildfires release nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons that contribute to elevated ozone levels. Breathing ozone can trigger a variety of negative health effects and can also worsen symptoms of bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma.
Even before the latest round of California wildfires started the costs associated with combating fires in the US were already over $2.4 billion. These statistics are tracked by the US Forest Service and they report that this represents a substantial increase. This year has already exceeded the record set in 2015 when $1.7 billion was spent on fire suppression efforts. Once the California fires are tallied the cost of fire suppression in the US is expected to double. However, this is a small fraction of the overall cost of the damage caused. Dr. Joel N. Myers, founder, president and chairman of AccuWeather said that the California fires alone are expected to represent a staggering $85 – $100 billion hit to the national economy.
Number and size of US fires
Wildfires are getting bigger and burning hotter. The California fires of 2017 are record-setting but so are fires across the US. As of Friday, October 13 there were 22 large fires burning in California and a total of 41 large blazes burning out of control in the West. According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), as of October 13 more than 51,000 fires have scorched over 8.5 million acres of the U.S. so far in 2017. This represents a 50 percent increase over the average for this time of year. More fires are anticipated in the US until at least the end of October.
Sadly these fires come at a time when the Trump administration is working to gut the budgets of the agencies that provide valuable data to control these fires. Under Trump’s proposed budget the nation’s six Regional Climate Centers (RCCs) would be cut by 82%, from $3.65 million to $650,000. Even before the most recent federal elections Republicans have been reticent to support efforts to fight wildfires.
The US is not alone, wildfires are becoming increasingly common all around the world. As explained by Kendra Pierre-Louis on August 4, spikes in the 2017 fire season is a global phenomenon. In recent years fires have burned large swaths of Canada, the Amazon and Indonesia. In 2017 the trend has intensified with major fire in Canada, Romania, Portugal, Russia, Brazil, South Africa and New Zealand have all experienced significant wildfires.
There are a number of wildfires burning in Canada including in the province of B.C. which is experiencing one of its worst fire seasons on record. Wildfires are also burning in the Europe especially in Italy and Romania. In June a European heatwave dubbed “Lucifer” contributed to wildfires that killed 60 people in Portugal. In July There was the forest fire in Montana’s Bitterroot mountains that burned thousands of acres and destroyed almost a hundred homes. There was also the Cherry Valley fire in southern California and wildfires in southern France.
Wildfires are also burning in bizarre locations. For example Ireland experienced a 75 percent reduction in rainfall and this contributed to unprecedented wildfires. Greenpeace reports that a huge wildfire was observed in Greenland just 150 km away from the Arctic Circle and 50 km away from Greenland’s ice sheet. This prompted local authorities to say that nobody has “seen anything like this in recent time”.
“As our climate is changing we see wildfires where they never happened before, or with higher intensity,” Greenpeace Russia’s Anton Beneslavskiy said. “This trend is going to get worse as wildfires themselves drive climate change with CO2 and black carbon emissions creating a positive feedback loop. This is a sign we are entering a new era, where a new, environmental approach to wildfires is needed”.
In Russia, North America and California in particular wildfires are closely associated with climate change. The increases in wildfires around the world in 2017 is entirely consistent with predictions associated with climate change modeling. As explained in a Cleantecnica article by James Ayre these fires are a product of a warming world.
As the climate warms there is more evaporation and these drier conditions are conducive to wildfires. Warmer temperatures also mean less snowfall and quicker melting of the snow. There are also other factors caused by warmer temperatures including dead trees caused by insects. As Ayers said, “massive wildfires will become more and more
widespread and recurrent.”
This story was updated on October 19, 2017.
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